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Examining A Culture Of Sexual Abuse In Martha Nussbaum's 'Citadels Of Pride'

American philosopher Martha Nussbaum.  (Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images)
American philosopher Martha Nussbaum. (Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images)

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last week that he’s resigning amidst allegations of sexual harassment.

Former and current aides say he created a ‘hostile, toxic’ workplace culture for decades, particularly for women. Cuomo said:

“In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone. But I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn.”

Hubris. Denial. Power. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum sees something more:

“This kind of overweening vice of pride, pervasively thinking you’re above other people, and that their concerns don’t count for anything.”

Today, On Point: Martha Nussbaum on sexual abuse and the “Citadels of Pride.”

Guest

Martha C. Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. Author of “Citadels of Pride: Sexual Abuse, Accountability and Reconciliation.”

Interview Highlights

What’s the one thing that most characterizes the rise and fall of Andrew Cuomo?

Martha C. Nussbaum: “When he alluded … to a line that’s kept shifting. This man has not been hiding underground for the last 30 years. The line … started shifting in 1970. And with 1980, we got no means no. But then shortly after that, there was the demand for affirmative consent. So not just hearing a no, it’s not enough. You need affirmative consent.

“And the criteria for sexual harassment have been really clearly laid out in the courts by 1990. Unwelcomeness, pervasiveness, seriousness. And so you know, he reads the newspapers, he knows what’s happening in the law, these are very high profile cases. So it’s taken him like 30 years to begin to internalize what’s actually been happening in the culture for a very long time. And to me, that’s just rank hypocrisy.”

To not be able to think into another person’s state of mind when you’re hugging and kissing them as the governor of the state of New York. What prevents a person from being able to possess that kind of humanizing imagination?

Martha C. Nussbaum: “The vice that I call the vice of pride, I mean, this is really according to Christian tradition, the seven deadly sins and so on. It’s not the kind of pride that the gay pride movement has, which is a kind of confident self-assertion. But the vice of pride is the vice that consists of thinking that you’re above it all and no one else is fully real.

“In Dante’s depiction of the proud in Purgatory, they’re bent over … where they can only see themselves. And therefore they can’t look out and see any other person. And they don’t acknowledge another person’s reality. And that’s a terrible thing. You could call it narcissism, but I think the term pride is fine and it gets across what’s going on here. People think that they are above others. Now, of course, I think all men in American society to some degree have had this vice because it’s dinned into them that just by being men, they’re above women.

“But there are different kinds of pride. Some people have class pride without having gender pride. Some people have race pride without having gender pride or class pride and so on. But gender pride is consistent thinking that women are just objects that you can push around for your own use and they’re not fully real. And that means their autonomy isn’t real. They don’t get to say no. And their subjectivity isn’t real. You don’t get to imagine what life is like inside their heads. And he’s a perfect example of this.”

What was it about this particular form of pride, the almost narcissistic form of pride, that really drew you to to now analyzing it now at this moment in our in our culture?

Martha C. Nussbaum: “I got started on this book during the Kavanaugh hearings. Because I thought so many things went wrong there. It was not a thorough inquiry. Her voice wasn’t listened to and all of those things. And I think there are lots of reasons to think that Kavanaugh lied about at least some things in his testimony. Particularly when he said he didn’t think that he had heard that Alex Kozinski committed many acts of sexual harassment. … Every law school in the whole country knew that Alex Kozinski harassed his clerks. And our law school wouldn’t even recommend clerks to his chambers for that reason.

“So to pretend ‘see no evil’ the way he did was just not believable. So I thought the book should be written that fills people in on, first of all, how long this movement is. Some people think that we only began to notice these things with #MeToo, but that’s just not true. There are lots of unknown people, not famous Hollywood stars who’ve been working in the trenches and talking about this. People, often African Americans, have been very prominent in this movement. And working to get the law to be better in both criminal law and civil law. And working to just get the public to be more aware of these things.”

On examples of ‘gender pride’ used in society

Martha C. Nussbaum: “I think people can be proud in one area and not in another. And I think it’s often the case that people may have gender pride without having race pride. Or they may have class pride without having race pride or gender pride and so forth. So I’m talking particularly about gender pride, but I think we have to understand the overall thing. I mean, actually, Dante, whom I talk about, decided that he had professional pride.

“He was exalting himself above other poets, and he viewed himself as guilty of ignoring their contributions, and putting them down and so forth. But he didn’t think he had pride in the other areas. So we have to ask, What area? But it’s always a danger. Once you start thinking that you’re above other people in one area, I think it can easily bleed into another area.

“And in our society, I think men have long been brought up to think that just in virtue of being men, they’re above women. Of course they are, in terms of power. And therefore they don’t need to respect their autonomy. And they often speak over them, and make decisions for them. And they don’t have to respect their subjectivity. They think they don’t care about their feelings.

“And I do think that the prevalence of pornography has aided and abetted this. Because they get this phony subjectivity of a woman who’s just put there, either on paper or on film, to be there as the instrument of the man. Who always just wants whatever the man wants. And they get used to thinking that that’s true in real life, that women are just there for them. They’re just objects to be used.”

Achieving reconciliation requires imagination and empathy. Something the prideful do not have. So how do we get there?  

Martha C. Nussbaum: “I think deterrence is a large part of the story. Of course, it would be nice if all men grew up in families that gave them a good moral education, and that they grew up with imagination. And many men do these days. I think most of the men I work with really understand these things very well. But there’s always going to be some who do not have that kind of upbringing.

“And that’s where law comes in. It informs and educates to some extent, but it also deters. So that if you want to act out out of pride, but you know that you might lose your job if you do, then that deters you. And I’m all in favor of deterrence as a motive for criminal punishment. I’m not in favor of pure retribution, that is payback. Because I think payback just doesn’t give you anything. I mean, think about divorce.

“People fight to hurt the other one. Who’s going to hurt the other one more? And it’s a terrible spectacle, really. It inflicts great damage on the children, on the friends. But also on the parties themselves because they become taken over by the spirit of revenge. Think of parents who’ve lost a child to murder. They become obsessed with the death penalty as though that’s going … to give them their child back.

“But of course, it never works. So I think retribution in general, and I’ve written a lot about this, is a futile exercise and it never gives you what you want. And it’s much better to look forward and think, what can we change about the future? And one thing we can surely do is to deter bad behavior by setting punishment at the right level.”

How can we create this legal structure to bring about reconciliation?

Martha C. Nussbaum: “If the law has been improved in the ways I suggest — and part of it has happened and part of it has not happened yet to take women’s voices seriously, to do things like getting rid of the statute of limitations for rape complaints, making sure all rape kits are processed. All kinds of things that I suggest in the book.

“Then women are positioned as equals of men, and that structure is fair. And then, of course, there are going to be outliers who really abuse the structure. Why they do that, that’s a long story for each one. I don’t know that any life story is ever completely finished. I think people’s acts are not the sum of who they are. And possible that some of them will change.

“Who knows what you learn through great suffering? I do think that Plácido Domingo has really changed his attitude. I know a lot of people who work with him. And they do feel that he was one who could actually be reformed because he basically did respect women. He really just didn’t understand.

“And so now that he understands a little bit more by suffering the loss of his engagements, that no, I think there’s a possibility. That’s what purgatory is. You did something really bad, but you’re still in the game and you can still move on and change.”

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from Citadels of Pride: Sexual Abuse, Accountability, and Reconciliation by Martha C Nussbaum. Copyright (c) 2021 by Martha C Nussbaum. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.